The Ghost Fiddler

This essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as part of the ongoing column “Field Notes.”
Recently one evening, I was walking along Celetná Street in the Old Town. The yellowish lights of the shops spilled out onto the old street, and spread a golden varnish over the peaks of the cobblestones, which rustled with the whisper of many feet, the sound of the throngs who are nearly always to be found there. It happened to be the last day of October, the Eve of All Saints, an unusually warm evening for the autumn, perfectly suited for a long aimless walk. This is a date long connected with ghosts, masks, make-believe, and things being not quite as they appear. The Anglo-Celtic Halowe’en recalls the old belief that the yearly harvest is followed by a liminal time during which the spirits of the departed can more easily pass among the living.

I was nearing the Municipal House when I began to hear a high-pitched, ghostly, ringing music, somewhat difficult to locate precisely, with a sound that resembled either a breath instrument, or a stringed one. This eerie sound, I found, was seeping out from the midst of a small gathering of tourists, at the nucleus of which stood a man performing a tune reminiscent of Mozart on a verrilion, also known as a water glass harp. He held his audience completely in thrall.

The verrilionist was standing at a table with a perhaps two dozen wine glasses of various sizes, each containing a quantity of clear water. With unerring technique, he repeatedly dipped the pads of his fingertips into these tiny ponds, and with a practiced stroke pressed on the rim of a glass, a gentle and precise friction that sounded a note by exciting the vessel into ringing vibration. His performance was seamless, with chords, arpeggios, crescendos and glissandos, a wall of ethereal sweetness that, in spite of the perhaps cloying nature of the medium, held a fascination for its morbid, other-worldly quality, which enchants as much as it entertains. It is probably for reasons like this that the instrument has sometimes been called the ghost fiddle. In the 18th century, similar instruments enjoyed a certain vogue, and legends from this time caution us not to indulge in it too much, either in listening or playing, because those who are sensitive to melancholy were thought to be at risk of insanity because of its strange, sad sound.

The supple hands of the ghost fiddler fluttered like little hummingbirds over the glasses’ halos, seeking the sweet essence of the music, and the fairie-like ring of it was a sheer delight. The tourists were recording the performance on mobile phones, paying homage to the performer by tossing coins into a pot laid before him. A lake of sweat grew on the musician’s upper back, soaking through his sweater. He gave the performance every possible nuance of gesture and force. That night, he seemed to be playing in peak form. The audience stood, jaws slack, eyes wide; the eyes of some glistened with tears. There is a reverent hush of awe, as they listened, rapt.

It was a little after ten o’clock when I retreated back down Celetná, toward Old Town Square. I approached the spot where, for nearly 300 years, stood the Marian Column, until 1918, when it was pulled down by a mob, who saw it as a symbol of Austrian oppression. The location of the former column is now marked on the pavement by memorial slabs of granite with epitaphic inscriptions in four languages that read, “Here stood and will stand again the Mary’s Statue.

Years ago, on my first visit to this spot, I had noticed that, curiously, some later vandal had chipped away selected words from each of the inscriptions in an effort to neutralize the affirmation that the column will stand again. It is clear that the site still evokes strong feelings, and some apparently wish that the monument never again stand, opposing the aspirational inscriptions that explicitly call for its rebuilding.

But on this evening, as I approached the spot, I was a bit startled to see a young nun in a traditional black habit, holding in her arms a bouquet of white lilies, a symbol of resurrection. Her head was bowed solemnly in prayer. As she was about to kneel and lay the bouquet on the memorial where the column once stood, I took out my camera and quickly made an image, taking no time to adjust the settings. I intended to make a series of better exposures, but it was too late. The nun had already noticed the presence of a photographer. I could see the surprise and alarm on her face. Before I could take another picture, she dashed off, cradling the the lilies in her arms as if protecting an infant from the rain, and disappeared into the crowd.

Ghost fiddler Robert Tiso playing Smetana’s Vltava

Another, less epic, but just as sympathetic ghost fiddler playing the same right above Vltava, on Charles Bridge